The author found that his job and an open Christian life were positive factors in building relationships.
The author (who wishes not to be named) found that his job in agriculture and his open Christian life were positive factors in building good relations with people.
The quietness around the corpse contrasted sharply with the family’s bustling activity as they prepared for the funeral. I felt both honored and uncomfortable. I was honored because Ahmad’s family had accepted my taking part in his mother’s funeral as the natural thing to do. Since he had not yet arrived, I was somehow his representative. I felt uncomfortable because no one seemed to care that I did not know what to do and when to do it.
Ahmad’s mother had died the previous night while he was on a field trip seven hours away. He did not make it back for the funeral, arriving just as we were on oar way back from the graveyard.
That event gave Ahmad and me many opportunities to talk about life and death. It also gave me a chance to grow closer to him and his family.
Ahmad had been one of my counterparts at the Provincial Ministry of Agriculture for the last two years. Through our shared activities, both at the office and in the field, we had developed a deep, joyful friendship.
However, as much as I enjoyed his friendship, I did have some other motives. I wanted very much for Ahmad to accept Jesus Christ as his lord and savior. I saw my job primarily as a vehicle to spread the gospel. I was a tentmaker missionary.
PAUL, THE TENTMAKER
The apostle Paul worked as a tent-maker at Thessalonica, Corinth, and Ephesus (cf. Acts 18:3,1 Thess. 2:9,2 Thess. 3:7-9, Acts 20:33-25). But he did not always rely on his own work. The Philippians regularly sent him aid (Phil. 4:16), which he gladly accepted. Paul explained that "the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel" (1 Cor. 9:14). Why then did he work for a living?
He explained: Though he himself was "free and did not belong to any man," he had "made himself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible (1 Cor. 9:19). He had become "all things to all men so that by all possible means (he) might save some."
Glenn Cameron concludes, "Paul worked as an application of Christian freedom. He gave up his right to support as an apostle to reach a higher goal-the salvation of as many as possible."
In the cosmopolitan cities of Corinth, Ephesus, and Thessalonica, Paul found that tent-making was a suitable profession to help spread the gospel. (Incidentally, according to some scholars, the word Paul used could also mean leather-worker.) By so working, Paul was not a burden to the people to whom he brought the gospel (1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Cor. 11:8,9). He was also a model of hard work to new believers (2 Thess. 3:9,10).
I pursued a degree in agriculture because I thought being an agricultural consultant overseas would help me to witness to unreached people. It would be an appropriate tentmaking profession. When I finished my studies, God opened a door to my friend Ahmad’s country, which is closed to traditional missionaries. I found a job with an international aid organization and was able to support my family, pay off my school debts, save for further study, and help to support missionaries.
Best of all, I had credibility with the people. According to Bruce Bradshaw, integrity and respect are the keys to witness to Muslims. Of course, this applies to all kinds of witness overseas, but it certainly helps to have a job that contributes to the country’s development. Although I personally struggled with whether I was a "missionary," no one ever asked me that "tough question about my identity and integrity," as James Tebbe describes it. In his article, "Lone Ranger: Yes or No?" Howard Norrish says that one advantage of Lone Rangers is that they do fit a legitimate pigeonhole in the eyes of local people. My pigeonhole was such that the question whether I was a missionary never occurred to my fellow workers. They identified me as an international consultant, whose devoutness they highly appreciated.
However, one of them was especially critical of my Christianity at first. But after two years he started to ask me questions about the Bible, and he was delighted when I gave him one.
I was not supposed to discuss religion on the job, but working with Muslims it’s hard to avoid it. Nor did I want to.
In fact, my open expressions of Christian life became springboards for sharing my faith. On field trips we ate together, shared rooms, and occasionally the bed. So, I started to pray more distinctly before meals and was careful to read my Bible regularly before going to sleep.
Sometimes, while we walked through the rice fields together, Ahmad would stop and ask, "Paul, what made you cross the whole world to walk these rice fields?" Once I said, "To meet you."
I’m sure that was part of the answer. Would Ahmad, with his royal ancestry, high level education, profession, and devout Muslim faith, have been as open to a missionary?
Of course, would-be tentrnakers must see limitations before they try to do it. Howard Norrish described them accurately, especially as Lone Rangers. But my wife and I did not have to be Lone Rangers where we worked. When we arrived, we found a fellowship where we could get some encouragement and guidance, and to which we would be accountable. Three different tentmaker agencies had people in our city. We chose one with a church-planting vision and "body life" emphasis.
Those weekly meetings still stand out as highlights in our Christian walk. Our fellow team members stimulated our ideas about lifestyle and contextualization of the gospel.
One time while we were worshipping Muslim-style, the door bell rang and it was Ahmad. We served him tea and he soon found out other people were there, too. To our pleasant surprise, he was not the least bit alarmed to learn that we met with other foreigners to study the Bible and pray.
As he began to make friends with other team members, Ahmad was amazed at how different these foreigners were from others he had met. He admitted the key to the difference was their devotion to God.
Some tentmakers fail because of a lack of adequate preparation. I was fortunate because my employer had arranged for a language and acculturation course for both my wife and myself. On the job, I became more fluent in the national language and gradually became somewhat conversant in the regional language as well.
As far as Christian experience was concerned, we had been active in the Navigators student ministry and as small group leaders in our home church. These evangelistic and discipling skills were critical to our success in making friends with Muslims. However, I’m now convinced that if a tentmaker wants to be a church planter, he needs thorough grounding in both theology and missiology.
Most people who have counseled tentmakers agree that lack of time is their biggest limitation, and that squares with my experience. We had time for making friends and for doing what might be called pre-evangelism. We also had time to get the language and the culture. But it is extremely difficult to do church planting, unless you sacrifice your family life.
One day Ahmad said to me, ‘There are many ways to Rome. From here to our capital, you can either go over the mountains or around them. You take the Christian car, I take the Muslim train." I praised God, because I saw that as a big step for a Muslim, to admit that Islam was not the only straight path.
But I had to take it a step further. I emphasized that to get beyond the capital, the only way is through the capital. The only way to the Father is through Jesus Christ.
As I look back on my time with him, I wonder how Ahmad will be buried and mourned for. Will his children send up their prayers for him, to shorten his stay in the Muslim equivalent of purgatory? What about the other Ahmads? How can we tell them the good news about Jesus?
Tentmaking offers one way to learn how to become all things to all men, to win as many Ahmads as possible.
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